Editor's note: This tour of small businesses across the country highlights the imagination, diversity, and resilience of American enterprise.
Four years later, the calls keep coming. The phone rings and a voice--Hannibal Lecter-silken--begins to recite: "There's good reason for my glistening skin...and how I shine...and how my pores are so clean and clear...I eat Little Baby's Ice Cream...."
Little Baby's gets at least one prank call a day, says co-founder Pete Angevine. "Sometimes it's like twins in Oklahoma saying, 'Is this a real-live ice cream company? Hahahaha.' Or they just hang up." Many callers, though, mimic the voiceover for the self-cannibalizing dairy ghoul that appeared in the company's YouTube video of 2012. That video has received more than 11 million views and established Little Baby's reputation as America's most surreal food company.
There is Benjamin Franklin's Philadelphia. There is Rocky Balboa's Philadelphia. The "glistening skin" video--and several that followed it--branded Little Baby's as a creature of David Lynch's Philadelphia. "In a lot of ways that video represents the spirit of Little Baby's, but in a lot of ways it really doesn't," says Angevine. "Because it is dark and creepy, and that is not really our thing."
The true ethos of Little Baby's is not Blue Velvet but rather Pee-Wee's Playhouse. Specifically, the set design for Pee-Wee's 2010 Broadway show, says Angevine, 33. The company, which hovers around $1 million in revenue, sells ice cream from two Philadelphia stores, a Washington, D.C., pop-up, and four tricycles. The stores' décor, the unique graphic associated with each flavor--even the design of Little Baby's pints, which are available in a growing number of Whole Foods and other upscale groceries--share the same bright colors, clashing patterns, and stretched-out shapes. Right angles are rare. Everything is a little bit off.
"Over the years we have been working on two aesthetics," says Angevine. "One is 'janky surrealism.' The other is 'pleasantly absurd.'"
Those terms apply to the product as well. Philadelphia was an early bastion of American ice cream. Breyer's and Basset's started here in the 19th century. Ice cream made without eggs is called "Philadelphia style." Philadelphia style is what Little Baby's makes, but in boundary-pushing flavors like Everything Bagel, Cucumber Dill, and Red Bean Rice Crisps.
Roughly a quarter of the company's nearly 200 flavors--many of them seasonal or one-offs--are developed in collaboration with other Philadelphia businesses, organizations, or institutions. For example, Little Baby's worked with La Finquita, an urban farm in the city's depressed north, to create Sunchoke and Arugula. The Works was a project with the nonprofit Neighborhood Bike Works: It incorporates local snack favorites like Goldenberg's Peanut Chews and TastyKake Butterscotch Krimpets. Vernon Wilkins, the "Carrot Cake Man" who for 20 years has hawked cupcakes on the city's trolleys and to store owners in West Philadelphia, has his own flavor.
These collaborations are creative rather than business ventures, undertaken for fun and to garner media attention for both parties. Sunchoke and Arugula ("It was strange and kind of tasted of earth," recalls Angevine) raised La Finquita's profile enough to help it win a small grant to build a new shed and fence.
Rachel Stumpo, field marketing coordinator at La Colombe Coffee Roasters, met Angevine while she was demonstrating brewing techniques at a café near Little Baby's headquarters. Together the companies produced Coquito, an ice cream that incorporates a coffee-infused craft rum and cold-pressed latte, both made by La Colombe. "As we expand along the East Coast our roots will always be in Philly," says Stumpo. "We like to work with our neighbors and Little Baby's is a great, inventive company."
The hot-sauce epiphany
If there's an improvisational quality to Little Baby's, that's because Angevine started out as a jazz musician. A performance major at Temple University, he left after two years to travel the world, playing the drums and recording with various bands.
"My favorite thing was to get to a new city, carry the stuff in, and then take a long walk around by myself--this little spirit quest," says Angevine. "I started to get really fascinated with cities."
Angevine returned to Temple with a new major: geography and urban studies. He also bopped around the city's experimental music scene, a hodgepodge of concerts and events staged in West Philadelphia basements, factories, and warehouses. After graduation he flailed around for a while seeking employment, finally landing an office administration job with the Mural Arts Program, a nonprofit that has produced thousands of public-arts projects across Philadelphia.
Angevine got interested in ice cream after visiting Humphrey Slocombe, a hipster ice cream emporium in San Francisco. His girlfriend's mother gave him an ice cream maker for Christmas: experimentation ensued. In 2011, Angevine bumped into Martin Brown, a trumpeter he knew from around town, outside a local experimental music festival. Coincidentally, Brown also had been making ice cream.
"I had been getting pretty good at coming up with these unexpected flavor combinations," says Angevine. "Martin is rigorous and methodical and was making ice cream with great consistency. Once we started making it together we quickly came up with these bizarre and compelling flavors that had a really good mouth feel and texture."
One night, at 1 a.m., Angevine stood in his kitchen tasting an ice cream he'd made earlier using breakfast tea. "It was pretty good, but I thought what would pull it off the grid and into the sphere?" says Angevine. "I was looking through my refrigerator... hot sauce! I squirted some in, chuckled, put it in the freezer, and went to sleep." The next morning, Angevine tasted his first spoonful of what became Little Baby's signature flavor: Earl Gray Sriracha. For the first time, he thought seriously about starting a business.
A three-wheeling strategy
A store is expensive. A truck is expensive. Enter: the tricycle.
Angevine, Brown, and a third founder, local musician Jeffrey Ziga, borrowed about $7,000 from family and friends. Needing low-cost distribution, they approached the sculptor Jordan Griska, a friend of Angevine's since middle school. At the time, Griska was working on one of Philadelphia's more jaw-dropping landmarks: part of a 1962 U.S. Navy plane that the sculptor crumpled and staged in crash position outside the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, with a glowing greenhouse in the cockpit. Griska found enough spare hours to build Little Baby's first tricycle. His creation had one wheel in back, two wheels in front, and a large freezer box between them, and the whole thing was wired to display lights and play music.
"The beginning and end of our initial business plan was to take this funny-looking tricycle and show up after punk concerts in the basement of a church and sell ice cream with hot sauce in it to people with funny haircuts and tattoos," says Angevine. "We soon realized there was a much, much larger audience."
Timing helped. In 2011 the food truck phenomenon was at its peak. Evenings and weekends the partners would take turns pedaling their unwieldy vehicle five miles to the First Unitarian Church, a popular concert venue. They would sell out almost immediately. Word spread. "We were getting invited to show up at formal and informal events--everything from a block party to an illegal warehouse concert to a fancy wedding to a nonprofit fundraiser," says Angevine. That summer they quadrupled their investment.
The partners produced the ice cream in very limited batches in Brown's basement, using the smallest possible commercial equipment. They made flavors like Balsamic Banana, Birch Beer Vanilla Bean, and Blueberry Ginger, eschewing all things chocolate because chocolate just seemed too plebian. ("That was probably a little immature," says Angevine, who has since come up with at least a dozen variations on the dark stuff.) Then, as now, 40 percent of the menu was vegan, made with coconut cream. "Because ice cream is for everyone," says Angevine.
Inside the pizza museum
Little Baby's was making a name for itself locally when Angevine met Brian Dwyer, owner of the Guinness-certified world's largest collection of pizza artifacts and memorabilia. Angevine had been living in the home of his girlfriend (now wife) in Fishtown, a working-class neighborhood revivifying with craft brewers, custom bike shops, and digital design firms. Dwyer and a partner had purchased a building there and were laying plans to open Pizza Brain, a pizza restaurant and museum. "We immediately recognized each other as approaching a different food with a similar kind of wacky spirit," says Angevine.
Angevine raised a little money from friends and family and went in with Dwyer to buy and renovate the building next door to Pizza Brain. The second building would provide additional seating and gallery space for Dwyer; and a production facility and sales counter for Little Baby's. "Ice cream gets pretty lonely in the winter in Philadelphia," says Angevine. "Pizza keeps on pumping and helps mitigate some of the seasonality." Another advantage was Dwyer's PR prowess. Tourists from around the world come to Pizza Brain--and therefore Little Baby's--after reading profiles in outlets like The New York Times, The Guardian, and the magazine of Australia's national airline, Qantas.
Little Baby's opened its first store on August 3, 2012. That same day, Angevine posted the cream-creature video to YouTube. He had conceived of it the previous fall with a high school friend, video artist Doug Garth Williams, who was visiting from California for the holidays. "It was not really intended to be a commercial. It was supposed to just be a video work tangentially related to ice cream," says Angevine. Almost instantly the calls and emails started. Some people loved it. Others found it disturbing, even vile. That day eight newscasts from around the country interviewed Williams. (Angevine was too busy serving customers to appear on TV.)
"For about 10 hours we were probably the most hated ice cream company in the world," says Angevine.
These days what Little Baby's mostly gets is love. The business is very popular with vegans; non-dairy offerings comprise roughly 40 percent of sales. People hire it to cater and, for an additional $200, to develop custom ice creams for weddings and other events.
A year ago P'unk Ave, a digital design firm in Philadelphia, hired Little Baby's to make two custom flavors for its 10th anniversary party. In a workshop with P'unk Ave staff, Angevine's team was inspired by the company's guiding metaphor of the "root," which represents organic development, to create an ice cream with beet juice and candied beets and carrots. A second flavor incorporated foods important to P'unk Ave.
"They drew from our specific food experiences, like a Mountain Dew drizzle because Mountain Dew is an inside joke for our team," says design strategist Ilyssa Kyu. "They also took some of our core metaphors and values and turned them into flavors. It was neat how they were able to put all that into something that tasted great."
Opportunities to "co-flavor" have expanded from local food businesses, arts groups, and other nonprofits to some truly out-of-left-field partnerships. Not long ago a sensory-deprivation company invited the Little Baby's team to take a float in one of its tanks and then create an ice cream based on the experience. The result, called Altered States, combined three textures of ice cream to represent the tank, the floater, and consciousness.
Angevine doesn't have national ambitions. He wants to make Little Baby's a strong regional brand, with 10 or so scoop shops in Philadelphia and nearby cities. The business already has a presence in Washington, D.C. Little Baby's key supplier, the organic dairy Trickling Springs Creamery, sells out of Union Market, a popular food hall there. On Sundays, the Mennonite-owned company cedes its space to Little Baby's.
The business recently began a push into grocery stores as well, with a half-dozen varieties on offer for the super-premium price of $10 a pint. Consumers pay not just for flavor but also for sustainability. Little Baby's has developed "the only 100 percent re-pulpable and recyclable ice cream pint containers on the market anywhere," says Angevine. True to form, the pints' design is as distinctive as their materials. They look like leftover cartons from a Chinese restaurant.
Like many of its flavors, the Little Baby's brand remains a combination of the good and the sweet with the odd and vaguely off-putting. In April the company posted to YouTube a video of a project it did with the Workshop School--an innovative, project-based public high school in a tough neighborhood--to try launching a pint of ice cream into space. Six months earlier it had posted another video announcing its new packaging. That one is more Anthony Weiner than Ben & Jerry's.
"It's all about what we can put out in the world that is new and interesting and exciting," says Angevine. "Ice cream can be about imagination and creativity. It is a blank canvas."